Sunday sees a League Cup final that carries greater significance than it is usually afforded. It is Jurgen Klopp’s first chance for silverware at Anfield, for his counterpart in the opposite dugout, it is the start of his swansong. The often derided competition suddenly has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the season.
Manuel Pellegrini has never shied away from the League Cup’s significance. He rightly points out, it was a catalyst for securing the Premier League in his first season and that it’s no coincidence that last year’s winners, Chelsea, also went on to take the title.
In a season where the pecking order has been turned on its head, a cup victory here, and the boost of confidence it provides, could be the thing that finally settles City into their stride. Despite league defeats at home to both Leicester and Tottenham in recent weeks, they are still very much in the title chase.
The importance of the League Cup was highlighted when Pellegrini relegated the FA Cup on his list of priorities. The FA’s ignorance – or perhaps arrogance – to give into the BBC’s demands for a Sunday fixture, when there were other TV slots available, meant their domestic cup was shown up as an inferior product.
Pellegrini has had to deal with months of speculation about his future, only to endure weeks of assumption since Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he’d be joining the Manchester club in the summer. It’s been easy for outsiders to imply that the dressing room is looking beyond Pellegrini now, that they have their eyes on either the next manager or a transfer.
A cup win ends that debate. It would prove the team is still focused on the here and now. Walking around Wembley with a trophy will reaffirm the unity within the squad and its senior management. It further justifies the FA Cup side after a big win in Kiev.
All that stands in Pellegrini’s way is the competition’s most successful entrant, eight time winners, Liverpool.
For them, the League Cup provides a chance to add some shine to what has turned into a difficult season for Klopp. A new manager always needs time to reshape the club in his vision. But after much fanfare the initial buzz has faded and the enormity of the task has become evident.
Any hopes for a Champions League push by finishing in the top four have disappeared. Their only chance now is through the Europa League, where they face bitter rivals Manchester United next. Even the most optimistic fan can’t be eying Europe’s secondary tournament this season; winning it will be a bonus rather than meeting expectation.
Indeed, all expectations must have shifted in recent times. Was sitting eighth in the table the goal when they fired Brendan Rodgers? It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have fared better without the overhaul but Fenway Sports Group must have been thinking long term.
Liverpool will be confident of finding an immediate antidote against City following their 4-1 league triumph at the Etihad. Klopp will go into Sunday’s showcase believing an application of gegenpressing will provide a similar outcome. He also knows, like the rest of us, that Pellegrini is stubborn. He won’t modify his approach now, he will try to outgun Liverpool and hope they collapse before his team is overrun.
Sunday could see the coronation of Klopp or the cementing of Pellegrini’s legacy. Failure could lead to the collapse both teams have flirted with all season. It’s not just a cup they fight for at Wembley, it’s precious, season-saving momentum.